Scarlet Tanager was one of the species that quickly filled a tree with color on Monday morning, along with Myrtle Warbler, Black-and-White Warbler, and Red-eyed Vireo. The migration had started! Photo by Brian Lasenby/Shutterstock.
By Bruce Beehler
5 April 2015, Blog #5 of my North with the Spring journey:
On Easter Sunday I was fortunate enough to celebrate a festive mid-day dinner outdoors at the Boy Scout Woods, on High Island, Texas.
The group of about 30 birders was celebrating the year’s work of the many volunteers of the Houston Audubon Society, which operates this wonderful reserve visited by thousands every year from all over the country.
(They also work closely with American Bird Conservancy to conserve beach-nesting birds on the Texas coast.)
Houston Audubon is a leading conservation force in this area. Conservation Technician Kristen Vale had just banded Snowy Plovers on nearby East Beach—a joint effort with American Bird Conservancy’s “Save Gulf Birds” program. Photo by Aditi Desai.
We were joined by the “paterfamilias” of bird tours, Victor Emanuel, and world-famous wildlife artist Robert Bateman and his family. It was wonderful to hear these two great personages recount evocative stories of Alaska and New Guinea and other exotic natural places around the world.
Myrtle Warblers were arriving in groups to make use of the reserve for resting and feeding. Photo by Elliotte Rusty Harold/Shutterstock.
The songbirds were quiet on Sunday but started to pick up on Monday, where a single tree at the reserve edge quickly produced three Scarlet Tanagers, five Myrtle Warblers, a Black-and-White Warbler, and a Red-eyed Vireo. The migration has started!
My Migration to Matagorda Bay
Late Monday morning I packed up my kit at the High Island RV Park and headed southwest down the Bolivar Peninsula. My destination: the 7,000-acre coastal prairie reserve owned and managed by the Nature Conservancy on Matagorda Bay.
The wildflowers in Texas are nothing short of spectacular. Photo by Bruce Beehler.
Seven thousand acres is a lot of Texas coastal prairie—a habitat that is now in short supply (as with most natural prairies). It is flat, open, and spectacular, and it is filled with birds of many varieties.
Annually, this is the Christmas Bird Count site with the highest species total in the entire United States.
Spring Fever on Mad Island, Texas
Spring is the best time for birds at this Preserve. There are the last of the wintering birds hanging on, various local migrant birds arriving to breed locally, and the many neotropical migrants passing through on their way northward.
I was fortunate to spend time this past week with Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center, which conducts a bird banding project here in a coastal thicket that looks out onto Matagorda Bay. Photo by Bruce Beehler.
The Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center conducts a bird banding project here in a coastal thicket that looks out onto Matagorda Bay, sheltered by the long sandy Matagorda Peninsula.
Bird-banding on the Front Line
This is the absolute front line in documenting each spring’s initial northward movement of migrant songbirds coming across the Gulf of Mexico. There is no more southerly coastal banding project to detect avian migratory movements approaching our shores.
So far, the Mad Island Team has documented about 40 species of Neotropical songbird migrants dropping into the little patch of coastal scrub where the mist-nets are placed. The species include Indigo Bunting, Blue Grosbeak, and Hooded, Kentucky, and Swainson’s Warblers.
The Team is still waiting for the “big push” and perhaps a first coastal fall-out of the season, when northerly winds and/or rain and fog knock down large numbers of birds, who head for the safety of coastal woodlands like the little scrub patch where this intrepid group is banding every day.
They have to be intrepid—facing strong winds, sun, swarming mosquitoes, coral snakes, and diamondback rattlesnakes. There are long days that start before dawn, which sometimes bring the excitement of new avian arrivals—or instead the boredom of empty nets.
Ducks and More on Mad Island
Since I got to Mad Island, I have also visited three private wetlands not far from here, with waterfowl and wetland experts from Ducks Unlimited (DU).
Ducks are not the only species to benefit from Ducks Unlimited’s conservation work. The Yellow-crowned Night-heron is another. Photo by Bruce Beehler.
DU is one of the largest private conservation organizations in the United States. By conserving high-quality wetland habitat for wintering ducks, these projects also create important habitat for migratory shorebirds, ibis, herons, and more.
The private wetlands I visited were working properties with agriculture or cattle (or crawfish ponds in one instance). Flocks of Blue-winged Teal were in abundance on the ponds and White and Glossy Ibis, White Pelicans, Tricolored Herons, and much more was there for us to admire.
My “North with the Spring”transport, ready for the next stop in southern Louisiana. Photo by Bruce Beehler.
Next stop, Southern Louisiana!
Bruce Beehler is an ornithologist, conservationist, and naturalist. He is currently a Research Associate in the Division of Birds at the National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution, and is focused on research and writing about nature and natural history. Bruce has published ten books and authored dozens of technical and popular articles about nature. In 2007, Beehler was featured in a “60 Minutes” piece highlighting an expedition he led to the Foja Mountains in the interior of New Guinea in which scores of new species were discovered.
The North with the Spring journey is supported by American Bird Conservancy and Georgia-Pacific.